After years of promise, billions of dollars invested in headsets, cameras, and new technology products, virtual reality advancements are finally expected to make immersive experiences more accessible to consumers.
All this offers a tremendous opportunity for journalism to fill a gap with compelling content and help determine both the value and success of this emerging media.
News organizations from The Washington Post to the Huffington Post are seizing the opportunity by experimenting with powerful storytelling approaches and experiences. Journalists are creating an increasing number of stories using spherical video and immersive experiences for mobile and desktop devices. They are covering news events along the campaign trail, using human holograms to engage audiences in interactive environments and are bringing people inside the refugee camps in South Sudan.
The New York Times and Vice News have assigned full time staff to VR storytelling. The Huffington Post — a Verizon and AOL company — acquired RYOT, a start-up specializing in immersive news and announced plans for regularly scheduled VR programming.
National Geographic filmed President Barack Obama in 360-degrees as part of its reporting on the 100th Anniversary of our National Parks, and partnered with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow to produce a VR short on rangers who protect African elephants from ivory poachers.
Courtesy: White House
Journalism schools, including those at the University of Southern California, Syracuse University, the University of Maryland and the George Washington University, among others, are building VR production, ethics and storytelling into their curriculums. At the same time, companies including Nikon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and HTC have announced or recently released new cameras, better controllers and more comfortable headsets that make it easier to create and experience VR content.
Investment in virtual and augmented reality companies, which increased from 2014 to 2015, according to a Knight Foundation and USA Today Network report, continued on a trajectory that saw its largest funding quarter in Q1 2016. According to an eMarketer report, investment during those three months exceeded $1-billion, including $793.5-million for mixed reality company Magic Leap. Deloitte Global recently predicted that virtual reality would have “its first billion dollar year in 2016,” with $700-million in hardware sales and the balance in content.
Yet even with the improvements in auto-stitching cameras and post-production software, challenges remain for journalists seeking to present news through immersive environments. While 360-degree video can, in some cases, bring people closer to places and people than traditional formats, storytellers are still learning how to establish a narrative thread, integrate audio and grab a person’s attention when the target is someone scrolling through a news feed.
Director Kathryn Bigelow agreed to do a VR film with National Geographic on Ivory poachers. Photo: National Geographic
As they aim to connect with new audiences, journalists and hardware manufacturers have a shared interest in the quality of the coverage. To address concerns that the novelty of the tech will wear off if the content is not compelling enough to bring people back, some hardware manufacturers are investing directly in storytelling. HTC, which sells the Vive, an immersive, motion sensing system that allows people to walk around in a virtual world, has established a $100-million fund for content creators. And Facebook set up a $10-million fund for developers to make VR content for Oculus, the company Facebook bought for $2-billion in 2014.
The eMarketer report cited research predicting that by the end of 2016, Samsung will have shipped 3.6 million Gear VR headsets, followed by 2.6 million PlayStation VR viewers, 700,00 Oculus Rift devices and 600,000 HTC Vive systems. That does not include the launch of Google Daydream, which may appeal to consumers looking for a simple way to view VR on cell phones.
With the new headsets being released this fall, the question of how this partnership between manufacturers and content creators will develop is central to the trajectory of the VR business. There is a lot at stake. There is also a lot that we can learn together.
Recognizing that, Google and the Knight Foundation have partnered with the Online News Association to establish Journalism 360, an immersive news initiative dedicated to the intersection of storytelling and new technology. This program will provide a forum for monitoring trends, sharing best practices, training and tips, and making grants to promising projects. To stay engaged with the opportunities that Journalism 360 will bring, follow the posts on this blog and please send along your thoughts as we build the community.